Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In which love is...

To be printed 02/04/10.

I was listening to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs this morning (it’s my Sunday morning singleton ritual – I do all the washing up, clean the kitchen and weep), and I noticed something. It was in the middle of Let There be Love by Nat King Cole. You know the one – let there be you, let there be me… let there be rain… a lark and a dove, etc etc. So far, so rom com. But then one lyric jumped out, one I’d never noticed before. “Chilli con carne,” he croons, “Sparkling champagne...”

Hang on. Chilli con carne? Seriously? Colon-defying mince and beans, the food of love? The perfect pairing to birds singing in trees, oysters, night breezes etc? The culinary chapter in the middle of the textbook of romance, chilli con carne? Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo, and did you remember the Doritos? Is that what Darcy and Elizabeth had at the wedding breakfast? Did Heathcliffe roam across the moors in search of a late night pharmacy to get Cathy some Rennie’s? Chilli con carne. Hmm.

Credit where it’s due, congratulations to the humble chilli for beating out all flouncier competitors. Chocolate-dipped strawberries, figs, fondue, all trounced by a steaming pot of cowboy’s delight. And that’s despite some deeply unsexy traits – the tendency to leave an orange ring round one’s mouth, for one, or all the subsequent toilet trips for another. And another. And another. I like to think Nat King Cole would start the meal with a Pepperami and finish off by serving up a jar of Nutella and a spoon.

There’s always the possibility, of course, that the lyric has recently been inserted by Coleman’s or someone in the hope of selling more Mexican packet mix. It probably used to be something more obvious, like moonlight or violins or that melty chocolate pudding from the M&S adverts. If this is the case, though, I’m a bit worried they’ll start doing it with other songs. Mark Morrison’s 1996 hit would become Return of the Big Mac. Dylan might have to start singing Like a Rolling Scone (made even more treacherous as it necessitates the pronouncing of ‘scone’ wrong). Bob Marley’s classic actually will be called Jam In, and the joke will become redundant.

Prince will do Raspberry SoufflĂ©, Pixies would have to sing Here Comes Your Man (from Del Monte) and radio stations would forgo the Beach Boys’ altogether and just play the old Babybel advert. It would be a nightmarish world of perpetual hunger. I’m almost compelled to write a dystopian novel about it, where everyone lives under the oppressive watch of Big Muncher. It would be called Nineteen Ate-y More.

But I digress. If it’s not a brainwashing scheme, and Nat King Cole really does believe chilli con carne is the food of love, well, that may be the best news I’ve heard in a long time. Because I’ve just learned to make a pretty darned tasty chilli con carne, so a proposal can’t be far behind.

In which I question our right to bare legs.

ShinyStyle - Why bare legs are a national style crime

Sunday, 21 March 2010

In which I end up green about the gills.

To be printed 25/03/10.

Hands up who knew you couldn’t eat green potatoes? Oh right, all of you. Marvellous. But where were all of you last Friday, when I was standing over a packet of peaky-looking spuds saying, “Meh, I’m sure it’ll be fine”? Had one of you piped up, even just with some mild doubt, even just with a “green potatoes, Lauren? Does that SOUND like a delicious dinner?” then you could have saved me a week of not-so delicious debilitating nausea. I hope you feel suitably guilty.

I’ve always had a laissez-faire attitude towards food safety. Partly under a mistaken belief that it makes me seem endearingly low-maintenance, but mainly because when given the choice of eating food or not eating food, I will always choose eating it. Whenever I hear a fact that widens my scope for risky food consumption, however suspect the source, I take it into my heart and cherish it. The time someone told me “sell-by dates are just a ploy by the government to make us eat more food” was a particular high. The day I learned the 3-second rule* was a life changer.

And green potatoes I honestly thought were an old wives’ tale, like crusts making your hair curl or Alan Titchmarsh being attractive. I was the kid at school who everyone would give their green crisps to eat, like a playground sideshow act, and as far as I can remember it never did me any harm. After all, green is the colour of health. For all I could see, green potatoes might count as one of my five a day, like spinach or something. My logic went: green bananas are nice. Greenness is a good attribute. Think of Green Onions by Booker T and the Mgs – good song. No food poisoning in that track (yes it’s instrumental, but hush).

I also looked to a literary authority for advice – namely, Dr Seuss, whose classic “Green Eggs and Ham” I could only see as endorsement of my off-colour dinner. Eggs are, after all, even less likely to be green than potatoes. They’re not even vegetables. But Sam I Am likes them, and from what I can remember he doesn’t die at the end of the book. So I ate them.

To cut a long article short (and skip over a lot of digestive discomfort), they were not a success. But worse than the food poisoning was the fact that everybody I mentioned it to in the subsequent week has gone “Ohmigod, green potatoes? They’re poisonous!” as though I should have known all along. Did I miss that biology lesson? Is it on a poster in doctor’s surgeries, next to the one on meningitis rash?

Now I’m worried about all the other food safety ‘myths’ that might turn out to be true. Does this mean I can no longer eat bendy parsnips? Or reheated rice? Does burnt toast really give you cancer? Unless the Cat in the Hat has an answer, I may never be able to eat again.

*I have it on good authority that in some parts of the country the 3-second rule becomes the 30-SECOND RULE. That’s enough time to perform a short ritual dance around the floor food in preparation, or maybe dump some ketchup on the floor to accompany it. If ever there was a reason to move North, I think that may be it.

Monday, 15 March 2010

In which the pies have it.

To be printed 18/03/10.

So, with the election looming and most people no closer to forming an opinion beyond which one they’d most like to slap*, our politicians are resorting to telly. Telly, the medium of the masses! We’ve had Gordon and Piers, David and Trevor, and I have it from a reliable source that Nick Clegg has been doing ads for a local sofa warehouse in Chalfont St Giles.

But they’re clearly getting it wrong. The self indulgence of the TV interview format is grating before it’s even started, with all those close ups of well-meaning puppy dog eyes and little frown lines they’ve cultivated worrying about the economy. Then there’s the wheeling out of the wives to deliver their spiel, on how said husband never picks up his socks and likes to eat Monster Munch in the shower, but none of that matters because he’s a rock and a hero and can make a mean spag bol and should definitely be running the country.

Meh. Mehhh. Much as I love Sarah Brown, and much as I have a passing appreciation for Smythson stationery (as in ‘I pass it in Selfridges on my way to linger round free samples in the food hall’), I think we need to leave the wives out of it. If our politicians want to do telly, let’s REALLY make them do telly. No soft-focus close-ups, no gushing family members, no incidental music. We should put them through their paces in a format that voters feel more comfortable with, something that reflects the true state of the nation’s collective psyche.

Considering the popularity of the two leading parties seems dependent in some quarters on who gets invited to Sam and Dave’s shepherd’s pie soirees or the Browns’ Downing Street tea parties, it seems apt to simply let the whole thing be decided by cooking. Yes, if politicians are ever going to stimulate proper interest among the apathetic youth of Britain, they need to do it through a medium we can relate to. But that isn’t rap, hoodie-wearing or pretending to dig the Arctic Monkeys. It’s Come Dine With Me.

Here’s how it would work: Brown, Cameron, Clegg and an as-yet-undecided fourth would take it in turns to host dinner parties, scoring each other on the basis of food, ambience, entertainment and hosting skills. While Gordon is in the kitchen trying to get his egg whites to go stiff, the cameras will follow the other guests on a ‘hilarious’ nose around number 10, trying on his ties and unearthing his signed picture of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, or something. Cameron’s menu would be all hearty-farty grub, the kind of thing he imagines the working classes eating after long days ploughing crops and painting nails (Findus Crispy pancakes, anyone?), finished off with, naturally, Eton mess.

Whether or not to give Nick Griffin a spot would of course be a tricky debate – endorsed, of course, by the promise of watching him chow down on a soul food starter, an ackee and saltfish pattie and a lamb biryani while making appreciative noises. We can only assume his own menu would be a lukewarm Ginster’s on a plate with some ketchup. Nom nom nom.

For Nick Clegg the endeavour would be worthwhile in simply helping everyone remember what his face looks like. While at the moment most of us see a suit with a hazy pink blob where his head should be, afterwards we would have a foodstuff to anchor the mental image to. We would think: “Nick Clegg – Beef Wellington” and then he’d instantly have some charisma. Or at least a flaky pastry casing.

So come on Channel 4, you’re missing a trick here. I’m not voting for Gordon until I’ve seen his clootie dumplings.

*Cameron because he has big, plump, rosy cheeks like a baby; Brown because his jowls would wobble in slow motion afterwards, like a rubber mask trying to fly off his head.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

In which things are getting socksy...

Why Socks and Sandals are Sexy this Season

In which we're coming out of the kitchen, and wearing it instead.

Printed 11/03/10.

If there are any massive, clanging mistakes in this column (or even little, tinkling mistakes, like the mistake equivalent of a souvenir windchime), please excuse me and put a hold on the irate letter-writing. I have been awake for 24 hours. I am not in the sharpest of mind frames.  In fact you’re lucky there are words on this page at all, and not just a doodle of a spaceship with donuts for windows.

I was up all night, and this is exciting because I was up all night for a reason I have never been up all night for before (I’m sorry, it’s the caffeine talking). Until this point in my life, there were only really three possible reasons for my being up all night: one was going out, in some sort of club-based scenario. The second was staying in, in some sort of violently-ill-based scenario. And the third was one of those communal sleepovers where everyone lies awake in the dark talking complete tripe about the state of the universe and trying not to come into contact with each other’s feet.

But yesterday, I stayed up all night because I was working. Working, that is, reporting on the Oscars for a style blog – something I feel guilty describing as work while there are people who go down mineshafts and put their hands up cattle. After 12 hours, two cans of Relentless, a sizeable packet of Oreos and the partial contraction of repetitive strain injury, I have concluded thus of the Academy Awards 2010: it was a good year for women.

It is pertinent, you can’t help but feel, that the first female recipient of the Best Director Oscar received it on the eve of International Women’s Day. Or maybe I’m the only one who can’t help but feel it, because having gone to an all-girls school, International Women’s Day is embedded in my consciousness as a guilty occasional on which to try to do something sisterly and consider giving up eyeliner. But even those untouched by the feminist resonance of Kathryn Bigelow’s victory can still enjoy the game of “how narked must James Cameron be feeling this morning?” It’s fun for all the family.

There was another female hero to come out of the night though, and one who has pushed the boundaries for women in a different direction. More specifically, she has pushed the boundaries of clothing to incorporate cooking utensils. Let us all applaud Carey Mulligan, the girl who had the courage to look at a conventional evening dress, stand up and say, “No. I think it should have miniature cutlery and scissors hanging off it.”

For what else do women really crave in this day and age, but the right to shun cumbersome handbags and wear everything we might need for a midweek camping trip hanging off the front of our ballgowns? An emblem of independence, Carey knows that it is not enough to rest on the laurels of one’s BAFTA-winning acting performance and expect the little people to take care of you. No, the thinking woman’s movie star is like an exceptionally well-dressed boy scout, prepared for every eventuality by becoming the Prada realisation of a swiss army knife. 

So here’s to the girls who made Oscar history. To Kathryn, for being the first woman to win Best Director and to Carey for being the first woman to wear a Sylvanian dinner set as an accessory. Oh, and both of them looked hot. But we all know that’s irrelevant.

In which I put spring in my step. Or a clunk, rather.

Shoes for the new season: clogs or the midi mum heel?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

In which it's the one where they stop being there for us.

To be printed 04/03/10.

In a world as rapidly evolving as ours, you can’t underestimate the importance of the constant factors; those small, unchanging details that provide reliable comfort simply by always being the same. Well aware that I’m sounding like the “it has to be Heinz” advert, I’d like to invite you to consider the comforting constants in your own life. Maybe it’s being given the same 5-pack of grey marl M&S dress socks every single Christmas. Maybe it was a nice packet of Werther’s Originals, before they cocked them up with all this chocolate fandango. 

For me, dear readers, it was Friends. Not real friends, of course – they’re a persistent source of irregularity and chaos, what with their actually living lives and not being fictional and everything – but the TV ones. There’s something infinitely reassuring in knowing that at any time, day or night, you can turn on the TV and find Friends somewhere.

It long ago stopped being a programme to have an opinion on, like or dislike, etc, and instead became a sort of trusty sideboard in the furniture of modern living. They’re like everyone’s friendly, unfeasibly glossy relatives. They’ll be there for us, when the rain starts to fall. Up to now.

Yes, Channel 4 has announced that from autumn next year it will stop broadcasting the show. What? WHAT? After having the New York sixsome on constant rotation since the series ended in 2004, the channel will be handing the rights to Friends over to Comedy Central. Which, I feel I ought to make clear now before any papers are signed, I don’t have. 

Of all the foolish decisions made by TV execs in the past year (“Let’s put Amanda Holden in a circus and see if she’s funny…”), this has to be the most brainless. So I will now pay tribute to 16 years of relentless Central Perking with my list of Reasons Friends Should be on Forever:

It changed the vernacular of a nation. “Nubbin”, “mississippily”, “Gunther”. All words we didn’t know before Friends took over our screens – and isn’t our vocabulary richer for them?

It is the yardstick for all viewing. Friends acts as a filter, dredging out all the substandard televisual content we might otherwise watch, by way of simple comparison. “ ‘My Dog Ate My Tumour: a compelling look at one woman’s battle with illness and canine devotion’… or would I rather just watch Friends?” Likewise all new comedy offerings can be tested by simply asking, “yeah, but does it beat watching Ross getting that spray tan? DOES IT?”

It does brilliant work drumming up trade for coffee shops. Not since the 18th century has coffee-drinking been such an important cultural activity. We might liken the scene in Central Perk to that of the Restoration coffee houses frequented by Samuel Pepys and the like, except that instead of searing political discourse, they had conversations about smelly cats and breasts. And William Hazlitt didn’t drink his lattes out of such big cups. 

It is a wondrous demonstration of human ageing. One of the best ways to enjoy Friends, I find, is to watch a really early episode followed by a really late episode, and use it as a spot-the-difference game. How thin is Monica? How chubby is Chandler? Is Rachel’s hair at peak long-and-straightness or is it in that woeful bob? (NB – Joey will always look exactly the same. Don’t bother with him.)

So, I have 18 months to find myself a new televisual comfort blanket before the Friends dance in that fountain one last time. That, or just save up to get Comedy Central.

In which plus-size fashion has all the more to love...

ShinyStyle - Fashion's Learning Curves